Gladden, Matthew E. “Ingarden’s Concept of the Relatively Isolated System and the Aesthetics of Biomimetic Virtual Forms.” Presentation at Roman Ingarden and His Times: An International Phenomenological Conference 2018, Uniwersytet Jagielloński, Kraków, October 27, 2018.
Abstract. As virtual reality technology becomes more sophisticated, there is growing recognition of the importance of Ingarden’s thought for the aesthetic analysis of architecture in virtual worlds. For example, his distinction between the ‘building’ that is constituted as an intentional object and its physical ontic foundation provides a useful tool for understanding virtual buildings, whose unique character results largely from their novel ontic basis. Moreover, it has been noted that Ingarden’s envisioning of future technologies for the ‘illusory embodiment’ of buildings in “O dziele architektury” §2 foresaw immersive VR technologies that are only now becoming feasible.
Here, however, we argue that a different aspect of Ingarden’s thought – the concept of the relatively isolated system – may hold even more promise as a tool for analyzing innovations in virtual architecture. We trace Ingarden’s development of this concept over three decades, from his description of the ‘organism’ as a hierarchical structural functional system (1937) to his model of the human being as a stable core with changing outer layers (ca. 1941), his analysis of Bertalanffy’s ‘open system’ model (1943), his notion of the ‘partially isolated system’ (1945-46), his description of the ‘relatively closed system’ (1950-54), and the mature concept of the ‘relatively isolated system’ developed in Über die Verantwortung: Ihre ontischen Fundamente (1968-70).
We then investigate the concept’s significance for virtual architecture. A growing trend is the use of computer-aided ‘form-finding’ techniques in which the shape of a building’s exterior ‘skin’ is not intentionally planned by a human architect but emerges organically through posthumanized processes of evolutionary computation; the resulting forms often display ‘Deleuzian’ curvilinear shapes resembling the bodies of biological organisms. In “O dziele architektury,” Ingarden had noted that in practice, human architecture never displays the organic irregularity and curvilinearity seen in living trees or in the ‘cities’ built by insects, because (1) functional considerations render such forms suboptimal for human inhabitation, and (2) human architects have been historically conditioned to believe that every building they design is ‘supposed to’ harmoniously concretize regular geometric shapes. However, Ingarden’s reasoning can be interpreted as anticipating precisely those radically irregular organic structures that are now becoming possible, as innovative AI technologies allow the task of form-finding to be separated from the anthropic intentional processes of a human architect and entrusted to non-human agents.
Moreover, such biomimetic design can be carried even further in virtual environments, whose looser constraints allow the construction (and aesthetic experiencing) of buildings whose forms would be impractical to fabricate in the ‘real’ world; such virtual surfaces can serve as sites of sensation and response that mediate between interior and exterior domains, reflecting the form and function of a living organism’s skin. We argue that Ingarden’s concept of the relatively isolated system provides a powerful framework for analyzing such virtual structures, thanks to its grounding in theoretical biology and its rich analysis of the outer ‘membrane’ that selectively shelters an entity’s inner workings from external causality. Such architectural applications represent another way in which Ingarden’s thought continues to bear new and unexpected fruit.